Five steps to choosing the perfect car to keep your family safe and meet all your needs as a parent.
Looking for a new car that’ll keep your family safe and meet all your needs as a parent? Here’s a step-by-step guide to finding the perfect ride.
Step 1: Evaluate the car’s safety features
The safest cars have the following features:
- Good performance in crash tests Visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Web site.
- Low rollover statistics The NHTSA rates most post-1997 makes and models for how well they resist rolling over during sharp turns and maneuvers. Cars are rated on a scale of one star (the worst) to five stars (the best). A one-star rating means the car has more than a 40 percent chance of rolling over. A five-star rating means the car has less than a 10 percent chance of rolling over.
- A LATCH system to tether your car seat LATCH is an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. It’s a new standardized system for child seat installation that stabilizes the seat and reduces the potential for head injury. All vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2000, are equipped with a top tether anchor, and most new child car seats have a top tether — you may have seen it on your car seat if you bought it after September 2000. Starting in September 2002, all new cars, minivans, and light trucks were required to have two lower anchors — right at the intersection of the seat back and the cushion — to make installing a car seat much easier and safer. Starting around the same time, all child car seats with an internal safety harness were required to have attachments that connect to the lower anchors in new cars. The LATCH system was designed to secure a car seat to the car without using the car’s seat belt system. Some cars already have the full LATCH system. Check with the manufacturer.
- An on-off switch for the front passenger airbag Almost all vehicles without rear seats or with small rear seats, such as pick-ups or sports cars, now include a passenger-side airbag on-off switch as standard equipment. If you currently drive a car with a small or no backseat and you need to transport children in the front seat — and you don’t have an on-off switch for the airbags — you can get authorization from the NHTSA requiring the dealer to install a switch in your car. Ask your car dealer for a brochure about this option. If the dealer doesn’t have one, check with your state motor vehicle office, or the NHTSA. Remember, though, that if you have a rear seat, that’s the safest place for children.
- Advanced air bag features A few cars come with “intelligent airbags” that automatically turn off if they detect a small child in the front seat or if an adult is seated too close to the airbag, since airbags aren’t safe in these situations. Other systems automatically adjust the way the air bag works depending on the size of the passenger or the intensity of the crash. Talk to your dealer or check out the manufacturer’s information for more details.
- Front seat side impact airbags as either a standard feature or an option According to both the NHTSA and the IIHS, front seat side airbags could prevent serious adult head and chest injuries for side impact accidents, like sliding into a pole or tree or being broad-sided by another car. If they’re not standard, front side airbags may be available, but they can add about $300 to $1000 to the price of the car. Keep in mind, however, that this safety feature is for adults only. Side impact airbags are not safe for children under 12. If you must carry a child in the front seat of your car, ask the dealer to turn them off.
- Rear seat side impact airbags that are safe for kids Most manufacturers have not met the safety standards for children for rear side impact airbags. Most side air bags are designed to protect the head and chest of a fully-grown adult, and may cause serious or fatal injuries to children under age 12, according to the NHTSA. Check with the manufacturer; if they can’t prove that their rear side airbags meet the safety standards for child passengers, have the dealer deactivate them for you. You can have them reactivated later.
- Lap and shoulder belts on all seats Surprisingly, not all cars come with shoulder belts in the middle of the rear seat — manufacturers are only required to have a lap belt for that seat. Make sure that you never put a child in a seat with only a lap belt. A child secured in a car seat with an internal harness is fine with a lap belt only, but a child in a belt-positioning booster seat needs a shoulder harness. According to the NHTSA, lap belts without shoulder straps can cause severe abdominal injuries in children under 12.
- Anti-lock brakes An Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) prevents the car’s brakes from locking when you slam your foot on them in a panic situation. Locked brakes can severely limit your ability to steer. Look for a car with four-wheel ABS. Some SUVs, trucks, and vans have two-wheel ABS (usually on the back wheels), leaving the front wheels vulnerable to locking.
- An interior trunk release Almost all vehicles with trunks manufactured after September 1, 2001, have an interior trunk release to prevent anyone from getting trapped inside. Ask the dealer to show you the trunk release as you’re checking out the car. Look for a release that’s easy to see.
- A back seat that accommodates your car seat According to the NHTSA, a properly installed child seat should move no more than an inch in any direction. Improperly installed car seats can result in serious injuries. When you’re out car shopping, bring your car seat with you and try to install it in the backseat. If your seat doesn’t fit properly, you may have to get a new one (something to keep in mind as you budget). Avoid cars with deep bucket seats in the back or a hump in the rear middle seat. These features can make it nearly impossible to install any car seat snugly.
- For more safety advice about specific cars Review the NHTSA Safety Features Chart, which provides information on safety features for most car makes and models.
Step 2: Consider how you’ll use the car Once you’ve found some models that meet your safety standards, really think about how you’re going to use the car. Some questions to ask yourself:
- How many kids (and pets) do you have? If you have (or are planning to have) three or more kids or you carpool regularly with extended family or friends, it’s probably in your best interest to look at a mini-van or large SUV. If you have one or two kids, you could be happy with a station wagon, most SUVs or passenger car. Dog owners often rave about station wagons, but if your pet is small or rarely gets in the car with you, a passenger car could be enough.
- Where will you do most of your driving? City drivers should consider the smallest possible car to make it easier to park, maneuver in tighter streets, and start and stop quickly. If you plan to commute in the car or you’ll be logging some serious highway miles such as on family road trips, you’ll want something larger and more comfortable. Consider extra driving comforts such as cruise control, a good audio or video system, and air-conditioning. You may also appreciate a car with a large gas tank so you don’t have to stop and refill all the time. But bear in mind that larger cars use more gas per mile, so compare mileage estimates while you’re shopping and factor that into your budget.
- What kind of weather do you drive in? If you drive in the snow or on rough roads regularly, you’ll probably want an all-wheel or four-wheel drive car. Otherwise, it may not be worth the extra price, or maintenance costs. As an option, 4WD or AWD can add about $2,000 to $4,000 to the price of the car. Plus, they increase your fuel consumption and may cause you to burn through tires more quickly. If you live in a warm weather climate, window tinting and air-conditioning should be a high priority. If you live in a wet, rainy area, anti-lock brakes are a must.
- Can you park the car? Some of the larger SUVs and vans are difficult to park, not only because of their size but because many have wide turning radiuses, (this is often a safety feature to keep top-heavy vehicles from tipping over during a fast turn.) If you’re considering a very large car, check the height of your garage door, or the parking garage where you usually park to make sure the new car will fit.
- How much storage will you need? Every parent needs enough trunk space to haul a stroller, so bring yours with you when you shop. Beyond that, look for cars with a flexible storage system. Do the seats come out or fold down easily? Is it possible to use the roof for carrying large items? If you go the mini-van or van route, you’ll have plenty of hauling space. Most models allow you to take seats out for transporting large items or reconfigure the seats to pack in up to 6 passengers. However, some of these systems can be tricky. Ask the salesperson to show you how to remove and fold down the seats, and give it a try right in the showroom.
- Will you be towing a boat or camper? If you want to pull heavy gear or plan on driving in the mountains regularly, you should consider a six-cylinder (V-6) engine. They’re generally smoother and quieter than four-cylinder engines, and they provide more power for towing and handling altitude changes. However, cars with V-6 engines tend to be more expensive (as an option, a V-6 can cost you about $2,500) and they’re less fuel-efficient. If you only need this kind of power once a year, it might make more sense to buy a smaller, more efficient car and rent a powerful one when you need it.
Step 3: Make the most of a test drive Although you might be tempted to leave the kids at home when you go on a test drive, they can be a great help in making your final decision. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, grab the kids and the car seats, hit the road, and ask yourself the following:
- Can you get to your kids easily? There’s nothing more exasperating than trying to get your infant car seat out of the back of a two door car. Many families choose a four-door car for this reason. When you’re looking at different models, strap your car seat in and practice getting your child in and out. Try it several times and ask yourself if you can live with repeating this motion multiple times a day for the next few years.
- Can your kids get in and out themselves? If your kids are old enough, have them practice getting in and out of the models you are considering. This can be particularly challenging with large SUVs.
- Are your kids comfortable? Can they see out the window? Do they have enough leg room? Are they blasted by the air-conditioner? Any minor nuisance that your kids report on test drive day could easily turn into a real tantrum trigger if they have to put up with it daily.
- Will the car fit your life? When you take your test drive, try to simulate your daily use — whether that’s running errands around town or commuting long distances on the highway. Don’t let the salesperson take you on a scenic drive that doesn’t give you a feel for the way the car will handle when you use it.
Step four: Weigh the pros and cons of options Once you’ve narrowed it down to one or two models, it’s time to think about options. Choose wisely, and you could end up with a car you’ll love forever. Choose poorly and you could spend a fortune on features you don’t need or end up with a car that’s missing something crucial for your family. In addition to the safety features listed above, here are some family-friendly options to consider:
- Safety locks on the rear doors and override window controls These two features keep little hands, arms, and children safely inside. Override window controls come standard on most cars with power windows.
- Air Conditioning Even if you don’t live in the toasty Southwest, air-conditioning can keep your kids from screaming that there’s too much wind in their faces. If it’s not standard equipment, air conditioning can easily cost about $800 to $1,200, but it increases the resale value of the car.
- Remote keyless entry Remote keyless entry allows you to open or lock car doors with a push of a button — a lifesaver for anyone who’s ever carried a sleeping child or bags of groceries. This feature often comes as part of a power window/power lock package or with a car alarm. Remote keyless entry can cost from $200 to $1,000 depending on what else is included in the package.
- Fabric protection on the seats Ask the dealer if this is an option and how much it will cost you. Dealerships often charge a premium for the service ($100 or more), but you might find the convenience worth it to protect your seats from day one. If you don’t want to pay the dealer’s cost, you can spray the seats yourself with fabric protection products available at auto supply stores.
- Video system These backseat entertainment units, available with DVD players or VCRs, can occupy your kids on long trips, but they’re usually pricey — sometimes costing up to $2,000. A cheaper option is to buy a portable DVD player that you can use in the house, too, and plug it into the car’s power source (about $500 and up). But bear in mind that portable systems can slide around in the car.
- Rear seat cup holders Kids like to snack in the car. Giving them a place to put those drinks can save you time and money cleaning up spills.
Step five: Figure out what you can afford When considering if a car fits your budget, don’t forget to examine hidden costs, such as maintenance, insurance, and gas.
- What are the car’s maintenance costs? Some car makes are much cheaper to maintain than others. Check out the Car Talk Web site for information on car maintenance costs. They have data for most makes and models. Consumer Reports also tracks maintenance records but they charge for reports.
- You can decrease your maintenance costs by doing some of the work yourself — such as changing the oil and checking fluids. Keep in mind, though, that some manufacturers will void your warranty if you do any of the work yourself.
- Check in with people who own the car that you’re considering. They’ll be able to tell you things that the dealer or manufacturer won’t.
- How much will your car insurance be? Some cars will trigger a higher insurance premium than others because of theft or accident rates. Call your insurance agent to get an estimate before you make your final decision. You can also get information about how frequently cars like yours get stolen from the cars.com web site.
- What kind of gas mileage does the car get? In general, lighter cars get better mileage than heavier cars and V-4 engines are more fuel-efficient than V-6 engines. Some cars require premium gasoline for optimal performance, which can cost you anywhere from $5 to $10 more per tank than regular gasoline.
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